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13 August 2015

Off on holiday: suncream – check; knotted hankie – check; French philosophy – check

Becoming a parent brought out the Brown Owl in me. Now added to my original, benign list of questions is this ever-present one: “What might possibly go wrong?”

By Tracey Thorn

Packing to go on holiday is as much an act of imagination as it is an exercise in organisation. It involves picturing yourself on location and asking: “What might I want to do? What will I want to wear?” Spoilt for choice as we mostly are when at home, the suitcase enforces limitation, which we either embrace happily or struggle against. I struggle, always have.

Aged 18, I set off on a three-week pre-university trip to Paris with an enormous case, packed entirely with books. I’d imagined myself, you see, as Simone de Beauvoir, nestled in a Parisian garret, surrounded by novels, writing in a little notebook, utterly French, utterly sophisticated. On my first night there, I ordered a cheese sandwich at a café and was astonished when it arrived as a baguette, having only ever encountered sandwiches made from two slices of Mothers Pride. Lord, how I needed those books around to enable me to cling to the image of sophistication. The illusion required scenery and props, hence all the heavy packing.

You might think this would have made my years on tour something of a luggage nightmare but in fact I found it easy – it’s more like going on holiday as a child. The tour manager is Dad; he can be called on at any hour of day or night for anything you might have forgotten or that you suddenly require. All you needed to remember were your stage clothes, which by the end of a tour back in the old gig days would stink of smoke and badly rinsed-out Travel Wash.

But becoming a parent brought out the Brown Owl in me, and now, being the catastrophic thinker I am, added to my original, benign list of questions is this ever-present one: “What might possibly go wrong?” Mostly this involves envisaging illnesses and injuries, and the packing of remedies, but I also worry about people being too hot (fans, hats), getting sunburnt (lotion, cover-ups), being bored (packs of cards, board games). And like my 18-year-old self, I pack books, perhaps still partly in order to define myself and to create a backdrop of meaning. “Look at her,” the books shout, “on her holiday, reading this.”

Ben – in common with most men, it seems to me – likes to pack light, seeing it as a badge of honour to have the smallest suitcase. If it was left to him we would have only cabin baggage, a feat he used to manage even during his years of touring as a DJ and having to carry records around with him.

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I recall a holiday 25 years ago when, under his influence, I, too, tried to take only the bare essentials. We went to the minimalist eco-resort of Bird Island in the Seychelles, a tiny sandy paradise that appeals to nature-loving birdwatchers. There were no phones, television or air-conditioning, no shops, no doctor. A four-seater plane arrived from the main island once a day with supplies. And I remember glorious, outlandish things: picking our way back to our room at night across the dark beach, trying not to step on the crabs, which were packed together as tightly as Benidorm sunbathers; waking in the early hours to a moon hanging low over the sea, huge and blood-red; encountering an eight-foot shark as we snorkelled over the reef and swimming back to shore as fast as I could, weeping into my snorkel mask.

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But I also remember (and I hate to mention this ailment again, so soon after it featured in Phil Whitaker’s column) getting a urinary infection and trying to explain this to the French-speaking lady who managed the resort. Luckily for me, the Worldwide Web of Women, which pre-dates the web we now rely on, came to my rescue: she turned out to be a fellow sufferer and, as if by magic, she reached into her handbag and produced the appropriate antibiotics. But I think that moment, when I had to mime having cystitis on a remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, killed off in me any miniature spark of being a carefree packer and made me want to be a woman who, in any emergency, would always have the solution in her handbag.

It’s a hopeless aspiration, doomed to failure. And please don’t weigh my suitcase.